Black Panther and African music’s indirect Oscar win

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Baaba Maal was instrumental to the Oscar-winning Black Panther score.

Africa Newsdesk; Nigeria – The 2019 Oscars, which took place on Sunday, saw the blockbuster picture Black Panther take three awards. At least one of those wins can be traced to African music.

You could say that the events leading to the Best Original Score triumph started when Ludwig Göransson met Senegalese musician Baaba Maal before the release of the film. But it might be better to go further back and chart the story from a meeting between Göransson and his schoolmate Ryan Coogler.

The former had provided the score to a Coogler short film in college, and since graduation the relationship had remained through two feature films: Coogler’s first feature, Fruitvale Station, and his Oscar-winning boxing flick Creed. Coogler wrote and directed; Göransson provided a score. These were mostly realist pictures, but now Coogler was asking that his frequent collaborator come up with something for Black Panther, a film based on a black comic book superhero.

A believer in authenticity, Göransson had developed a method involving the direct capture of environmental sounds: while working on Fruitvale Station, he recorded sonic elements from a train station. But such a thing was hardly possible on the new project, given the fictional setting of Black Panther. As far as anyone knew, there was no Wakanda to go record sounds from.

Göransson later told NPR he wasn’t sure how to create the Black Panther score, but a talk with Coogler offered an inroad. “One of the first conversations that me and Ryan had was, ‘How can we use as much inspiration from African music?'”

But, as he told an interviewer, he needed to “figure out where to go”. Africa, after all, is “a big continent”. Some online research on West African music helped him and he was able to get the phone number for Baaba Maal from a member of the folk band Mumford & Sons. The Senegalese veteran invited the western caller to his tour in Dakar. Göransson agreed and, in the very best sense, his mind was blown by the experience.

“I’d been traveling for three days, but when I heard him it was sort of a religious experience,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I want to capture this feeling in the film’”.

For Baaba Maal, extending an invitation to the European was intuitive. He felt the Swedish composer should see African culture first-hand and get to listen to the music in a lived-in space, with musicians playing and the audience coming in to listen. “For me, that was the feeling of the music he was looking for,” Baaba Maal said.

It might have been unclear to the men themselves but a connection exists between Baaba Maal’s intuition and the Swedish musician’s erstwhile approach: b both depend on a sort of immersion. Instead of the technologically immersive experience of recording an environment’s sound, Baaba Maal got the composer himself to become the immersive device, in a sense, to be one with the sound he was seeking.

Göransson got to absorb elements from the culture and people of Senegal. “When you follow a band like my band around Senegal,” Baaba Maal said to NME, “it’s not just the band themselves who are going to inspire you, it’s also the population.” He had already spoken to “the filmmaker in LA”, Coogler presumably, and felt that the film “was like a story that can be happening in my hometown or in my region”.

Subsequently, the men got into the studio and worked with the talking drum, balafon, kora and other distinctly African instruments. Their sessions were “experimental”, as Baaba Maal described it. When the session was over, Göransson left to pursue more sonic ideas. Baaba Maal, who by now had provided vocals to the score, waited for the film’s release.

Upon seeing the finished film, Baaba Maal was impressed. “When the sound comes out I know exactly that we did the right thing for that movie.” On Sunday, the Oscars proved him right when Göransson climbed onstage to receive the famed statuette. Some might say Baaba Maal should have been present at the ceremony, and that may be so. But it might soothe some hearts that Göransson remembered where the inspiration for his award-winning work came from. After paying homage to Coogler, he thanked the “incredible African artists” he worked with, Baaba Maal’s name receiving the first mention.


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